Solitary Travels: International Film Festival Rotterdam 2020
Pedro Costa, in his Masterclass on the first Friday of the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), began with a characteristically Scrooge-like dismissal of the concurrent Sundance Film Festival, flattering IFFR attendees in the process when he claimed that we in Rotterdam were more likely to be familiar with the works of Robert Bresson, Howard Hawks, and other luminaries (though whether that’s true or not is for another writing). The Portuguese auteur went on to detail his personal philosophy of cinema as a fundamentally solitary experience, not a star-studded, hype-generating “party.” IFFR isn’t anti-parties, naturally—in fact, the festival boasts a communal atmosphere that is much less hierarchical and exclusive than other festivals of comparable size. But making my way through IFFR’s massive catalog, I indeed felt, more than any other festival, a sense of blissful isolation as I structured my festival experience with little guidance and few reference points aside from stray bits of hearsay and vague plot descriptions. That sense of freedom strikes me as unique to Rotterdam.
Throughout its 10-day run, IFFR screened over 200 feature films—and that doesn’t include IFFR’s short and mid-length programming, which puts that tally at over 500. There were a handful of big-name carryovers from last year (think Mati Diop’s Atlantics, Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, and Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliana Dornelles’s Bacurau), but the delights of IFFR rest primarily in the unknown and in the unexpected discoveries afforded by whimsical decision-making.
One such delight screening in the Bright Future Hivos Tiger Competition, a section dedicated to new and upcoming filmmakers, was Greek visual artist Janis Rafa’s Kala Azar. In a deliberate and lugubrious 85-minutes, the film follows a bohemian couple employed by an animal crematorium to collect the bodies of beloved pets and roadkill carcasses. Sensual and grotesque in its close-up estrangement of bare bodies in the throes of lovemaking, flurries of ash, and and furry corpses piled up on top of each other, Kala Azar questions the divide between the feral and the civilized, and abounds in the organic, often icky materials that comprise both life and death—blood, saliva, and flesh (both animated and not). Dialogue is sparse, and the stilted, unromantic otherworldliness of Rafa’s characters recall past approaches in contemporary Greek cinema (think Dogtooth), though Azar boasts a salient earthiness and a poignant aural dimension, replete with barking dogs and the sound of fleshy aloe leaves getting sliced up. Another Greek import particularly fascinated with the link between humans and animals is Babis Makridis’s Birds (Or How to Be One), an experimental mockumentary loosely based on the Aristophanes comedy The Birds. A departure from the gloomy formalism of Makridis’s previous film, 2018’s Pity, Birds comprises vignettes of a world in which some humans strive to become birds, tracing the journey of those in search of this coveted form (though throughout—despite mastery of avian calls and flocking habits—the human body remains laughably intact). At the heart of Makridis’s experiment is a political fantasy that bemoans our increasingly heightened state of social alienation. This sentiment is perhaps best encapsulated by a bird-hopeful’s, testimonial in which he recounts the dream of being invited to the engagement party of his neighbor’s daughter, and upon arriving, is met with a profound sense of gratitude and love. His neighbor embraces him—he is in tears to be sharing this joyous moment with a friend by his side.
Filmmaking duo Joe DeNardo and (Rail contributor) Paul Felten’s Slow Machine transports audiences to an authentic New York City—that is, not of Times Square, big-city wonderment, but of cramped apartments and grey, windowless basements. This claustrophobic, un-glamorous sense of space is indebted to the crew’s micro-budget constraints, yet the mise-en-scene works well with the seedy underground of acting illuminati and shady cops that undergird the film’s mix of black humor and conspiratorial menace. Inspired by Jacques Rivette and John le Carré, Slow Machine follows jaded theater actress Stephanie (Stephanie Hayes) as she navigates eerie, often absurd encounters that play out with, as one character describes, “a sense of banal foreboding,” like a series of Brooklyn-specific ghost stories.
Luis López Carrasco also tries his hand, in a sense, at the ghost story in the remarkable three-and-a-half hour documentary El año del descubrimiento. Shot in Carrasco’s medium of choice, VHS, the film interrogates Spain’s blinkered historical memory through a series of testimonials that double as casual bar conversations, wherein memories of political struggle are interspersed with drinks, cigarettes, and lewd jokes. Specifically, Carrasco here interrogates the amnesia surrounding the events of 1992, when a regional parliament building was set on fire amid violent worker protests against the country’s rapid de-industrialization. Overshadowed by the positive symbolism of the Barcelona Summer Olympics of the same year, this alternate history is resurrected by a medley of individuals—ex factory-workers who themselves participated in the protests, witnesses, school teachers, students—in an average bar in Cartagena. Carrasco makes minimal use of maps and intertitles to piece together the motives and policies leading up to the protest’s eruption; the emphasis remains on the individuals, often presented in two parallel screens as a means of synthesizing lived experience with narrated memory, bridging the divide between speaker and listener and situating history within the textures of the everyday.
Melissa Liebenthal’s short film Aquí y allá explores the family history of the filmmaker through a sense of geography and place, showing how accessible technologies like Google Maps give us unprecedented access to locations around the world and yet do nothing to forge the empty, lost spaces that time and history carve out. Much of Aquí y allá shows Liebenthal clicking and zooming around Google Maps while explaining the various courtships that led to her family’s ultimate settlement in Argentina; at one point we even see the street corner of her family home, and look up at the outside of her bedroom window. The filmmaker wonders if her parents are home. There’s something wondrous to this ability that modern technology affords us, yet these images, put under the magnifying glass, remain oddly devoid of specificity. Rotterdam-based artist Erik van Lieshout’s Beer is somewhat of a palette cleanser in the otherwise sober scope of the shorts in competition. Its humor, however, is deceptive; beyond its self-mocking tone is a compelling interrogation of privilege and artistic integrity. About the artist’s reckoning after he wins the Heineken prize (a real-life grant for Dutch artists), Beer resembles a series of gonzo diary entries that show Van Lieshout struggling to make sense of how his personal and artistic practice has changed since finding himself with new corporate overlords. Following the receipt of his cash prize, van Lieshout heads to Central Africa to help finance the construction of a new pharmacy, an implicit condemnation of recent reports that female Heineken employees in Africa were sexually harassed and abused. But when van Lieshout’s open critique of the company makes it into the Dutch tabloids, the artist is effectively forced to withdraw his comments. In documenting this unfolding scandal, van Lieshout draws attention to his capitulation by emphasizing the cushy, flimsy manner of his resistance as a white male artist grappling with his personal ethics from the comfort of a yoga mat.
This year’s Tyger Burns program, curated by Olaf Möller and Gerwin Tamsma, was dedicated to new works by older filmmakers who appear to have fallen out of the spotlight, and serves in part as an introduction to the commemorative efforts certain to take place next year with IFFR’s 50th anniversary. “The 20th century cult of youth reigns supreme,” Möller and Tamsma explain in their program notes, thus the Tyger Burns explores the other extreme, considering how new films by directors like Werner Herzog, Ruy Guerra, René Viénet and Arturo Ripstein fit within the current moment. But perhaps the aging auteur most keyed into the crisis of the times, precisely because of the rigor with which he examines the past, is Nobuhiko Obayashi, who was represented by his latest, Labyrinth of Cinema. How to begin with this extraordinarily dense, slippery film, which meditates upon Japanese cinema, history and politics as existing in an eternal, psychedelic tango with one another? A cinema literally turns into a time machine at the start of the film, and a crew of young Japanese are sucked in and reanimated as characters within a playful, intentionally artificial, and cinematic genre-inflected view of history leading up to The Bomb. Its deep, longing sense of nostalgia and its affectionate recreation of a long-lost cinematic history call to mind Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. Yet Labyrinth of Cinema seems to disassemble what Tarantino so lovingly erects by demonstrating the essential futility of revisionism, and, through means as disconcertingly hilarious as they are horrifying, urges a call to arms.